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Irish Soda Bread History

Traditional irish soda bread Nenagh Map 1778Just like the bagpipes weren't invented by the Scots, the chemical reaction that makes Soda Bread what it is, wasn't invented by the Irish.  The earliest reference to using soda ash in baking bread seems to be credited to American Indians using it to leaven their bread.  Pearl Ash was used prior to 1800 to make cakes by combining it with an acidic ingredient in the dough.  However, as the Scots have made the bagpipe their instrument, the Irish have made Soda Bread theirs.  Not by choice, but by a state of poverty that made it the easiest bread to put on the table. 

Hard wheat flour, the main kind we use in the US today, requires yeast for a proper rise while "soft" wheat flour does poorly with yeast, but it great for "quick breads" of which Soda Bread is one.  At the turn of the 20th century while other parts of Britain preferred hard wheat flour and moved away from quick breads, the Irish stuck with soft wheat and the Soda Bread.  In 1908 2/3 of the flour used in Ireland was soft wheat and primarily imported from the US.   American flour was 90% of what was used in Belfast, and Dublin's use of American flour reached 80%.  Another link across the sea.

Several books published in the UK in 1866 and 1868 give the standard recipe for soda bread with the note that "it is much eaten in the United States."   So how did a bread that the British consider to be popular in America, become identified with the Irish?

In the journal Chemistry and Chemical Analysis by the Ireland Commissioners of National Education published in 1861 in Dublin the following appeared on page 319:

Although it is very desirable that bread should be light, it is not always possible to obtain yeast: - hence, what is called "soda bread" has been of late, very much used.  Its lightness is due to carbonic acid, disengaged from bicarbonate of soda.  The latter is mixed with the flour, and is decomposed by an acid -- sometimes, by that contained in sour milk, but more conveniently by dilute hydrochloric acid.  This kind of bread, has not the advantage of its constituents being even slightly broken up, by incipient fermentation; nevertheless, it is said to have properties, which render it at least as wholesome as that which is made with yeast.

The Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science published in 1850 (p. 182) refers to unscrupulous  dealers:
During the failure of the potato crop, a large quantity of bicarbonate of soda was employed by the poorer classes in the preparation of bread; the article consequently became scarce, owing to the increased demand, and the price rose accordingly.

Just as today, crooked dealers sold substitute chemicals resulting in death to many.

Here is the story so far:

In 1817 the editor of The Gentleman's Magazine, published in London, was challenged to come up with a better way of making bread with poor wheat.  He decided to create a way without using leaven.  He used wheat flour, mealy potatoes, salt, and water.  And soda and muriatic acid.  He mixed carbonate of soda with six pounds of flour; then with six pounds of pulp of steamed or boiled potatoes, mixed three drachms of muriatic acid, diluted with a pint of water.  Continued on with combining the mixture, formed a loaf and baked before a fire.  He conducted several experiments with the aid of his baker to come up with his bread.   Without the potatoes, it meets all the requirements of being a soda bread.  He went on to describe making a 9 lb cake containing  additional ingredients at a cost of two shillings and sixpence.

In 1824 "The Virginia Housewife" by Mary Randolph was published.  It contained a recipe for Soda Cake.

Dissolve half a pound of sugar in a pint of milk; add a teaspoon of soda, pour it on two pounds of flour--melt half a pound of butter.  Knead all together until light.  Pour it in shallow molds and bake it quickly in a quick oven."

In NOV 1836 the The Farmer's magazine (London) p. 328 cited the following article that was repeated in various publications in the US, including  The Journal of the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania and Mechanics' Register on page 71 had the following.

A correspondent of the Newry Telegraph (a newspaper in Northern Ireland) gives the following receipt for making "soda bread," stating that "there is no bread to be had equal to it for invigorating the body, promoting digestion, strengthening the stomach, and improving the state of the bowels."  He says, "put a pound and a half of good wheaten meal into a large bowl, mix with it two teaspoonfuls of finely-powdered salt, then take a large teaspoonful of super-carbonate of soda, dissolve it in a half a teacupful of cold water, and add it to the meal; rub up all intimately together, then pour into the bowl as much very sour buttermilk as will make the whole into soft dough (it should be as soft as could possibly be handled, and the softer the better,) form it into a cake of about an inch thickness, and put into a flat Dutch oven or frying pan, with some metallic cover, such as an oven-lid or griddle, apply a moderate heat underneath for twenty minutes, then lay some clear live coals upon the lid, and keep it so for half an hour longer (the under heat being allowed to fall off gradually for the last fifteen minutes,) taking off the cover occasionally to see that it does not burn.  This he concludes, when somewhat cooled and moderatey buttered, is as wholesome as ever entered man's stomach.  Wm . Claker , Esq., of Gosford, has ordered a sample of the bread to be prepared, and a quantity of the meal to be kept for sale at the Markethill Temperance Soup and Coffee Rooms.   Farmer's Magazine.


This exact word-for-word article also appeared in The Southern Planter published in 1843. The above is the earliest reference to a soda bread recipe in Ireland we have come across.

 In the same digest is a specification of a patent granted to John Whiting, M.D. of Kennington, England for an improvement in preparing certain Farinaceous Food,  - Sealed May 3, 1836.

The patent describes in great detail and in many more words than the following, how to make bread using 7 pounds of wheaten flour mixed with 350 to 500 grains of carbonate of soda with about 2 3/4 pints of pure water. Mix separately 3/4 pint of water with pure muriatic acid (420 to 560 grains).  Divide the flour into two parts.  To one add the soda solution gradually, well stirring and beating the mixture.  Then add the other portion of flour and while mixing pour in the diluted acid.  Lightly kneed on a board for a short time. Loaves should be 1/2 lb to 1 1/2 lb each. Best baked under tins.  Common salt can be added for taste.

So, in 1836 an Englishman had the patent for basically making soda bread in a particular fashion.  Wheat flour, salt, an alkali and an acid in proper quantities to make a quick bread.

It was in 1835 that pre-packed "Royal Baking Powder" came into production combining bicarbonate of soda with cream of tartar to create the alkali/acid combination to release carbon dioxide gas to cause the bread to rise.

Powders combine both the soda and acid components that release CO2 when moisture is added.  Bicarbonate of soda in baking was first introduced around the 1840s in Ireland.  How it was introduced seems to be a mystery yet to be solved.

In the book Saleratus: The Curious History & Complete Uses of Baking Soda by Peter Ciullo, the author states that in the 1830's Britain primarily used baking powder for making bread but British companies couldn't make inroads into the US market and baking soda remained popular.

So, that leaves the question of why bicarbonate of soda was called Bread Soda in England and Ireland in the 18th/19th century if baking powder was widely used?  Did the British baking powder companies have the same problem convincing the Irish to use baking powder as they did in America?  Was it a matter of price?

Traditional irish soda bread  Royal Baking PowderIn the U.S. "The Royal Baking Powder" company was incorporated in 1873.  It appears that these are two different companies.  One British (1835) and one American (1873) separated by 38 years.



In 1846 Americans John Dwight and Dr. Austin Church started producing bicarbonate of soda in Dwight's home.  Prior to that Church had experimented in synthetic production of bicarbonate of soda in Rochester, NY in the 1830s.  In 1840 he moved to New York where he was influenced to go into business with his brother-in-law, John Dwight.  Church was in charge of production and Dwight handled sales.

Irish soda bread cow brand baking sodaThe first factory was in the kitchen of Dwight's home with baking soda put into paper bags byIrish soda bread ad hand.  The following year they formed John Dwight and Company and adopted a Cow as their trademark in 1876 since sour milk was the acidic agent needed to activate the soda.  The Cow continued in use until 1960. (the ad shown on the left is circa 1900)


Traditional Irish Soda Bread D&C baking soda"Saleratus" (ad on the left) means Baking Soda
In 1867 Church's sons formed Church & Co. with the now famous "arm and hammer" logo.

In 1896 a merger between the companies created Church & Dwight, Inc. the trademark Arm & hammer, originally used for baking soda, is applied to many products today.

The Acid side of the equation

Sour milk was used in the making of soda bread in Ireland, just as in the US, and in the 1930s it could be purchased from the local creamery since fresh milk was usually consumed by the household before it could go sour. (a brilliant marketing plan to sell something the creamery would normally have to throw out.)

Today, buttermilk is used instead of sour milk since it is more easily found.  If you wish to use sour milk, you can wait patiently for it to go sour, or you can make it by combining two cups of fresh milk with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or distilled vinegar.  In about 15 minutes you will have a substitute for buttermilk.  You could also use about 1 1/2 teaspoons of cream of tartar to the milk instead of lemon juice or vinegar to get similar results.

If you want an easy way to have buttermilk at home or on camping trips, try using Saco Cultured Buttermilk blend.  It is a powder that only needs water to create buttermilk and can usually be found in most baking aisles at the supermarket.  The company claims that the powdered version produces a more traditional buttermilk that can be found in liquid form at the grocery store.

Keep The Tradition Alive!